The plane shudders as it gathers enough speed for take-off. A minute later, the six-seater is rapidly climbing altitude, and a cloudless sky ensures a smooth flight. I am flying with Patrulla Aérea Civil Colombiana (Colombian Civil Air Patrol) to Tame, a small town in the great expanse of Colombia’s eastern plains.
Known by its Spanish acronym PAC, the non-profit was founded in 1964 by five pilots who decided to volunteer their planes to assist with search and rescue missions. During these initial trips, the pilots realized that medical care was lacking or completely non-existent in many regions of Colombia, and gradually, began to ask doctors to join them in their missions. Soon, schools were transformed into consultation rooms where ambulatory surgeries, from cataracts to hernias, were treated by specialists. For the doctors in the air patrol, a chance to help others was also an opportunity to see the Colombian countryside that was off limits given the internal conflict.
Over the last decade, the brigades have given over 200,000 medical consultations, performed 9,000 surgeries in over hundreds of remote areas of this country, many of which are home to the most vulnerable communities, including ethnic populations that were displaced by violence.
Shortly after skirting the mountainous department of Boyacá, the plains of Los Llanos extend before the cockpit window. Nine private pilots have volunteered on this mission with planes powered by the country’s energy giant, Terpel, which, for the last decade, has donated all the jet fuel.
A quick landing and we are ushered into taxis heading for the San Antonio hospital where the scene inside is rushed. Nurses are busy arranging surgical instruments, biomedical engineers set up anaesthesia machines, and pharmacists unpack boxes of donated medical supplies. All of the two-tonnes worth of equipment arrived by trucks the previous day.
The objective is to work around the clock, from Friday to Sunday, even if for the doctors this mission only offers a few hours of sleep. If a hospital doesn’t meet essential health standards, the members of PAC are ready and willing, to make renovations, such as flying in conditioning units, portable power generators and water storage tanks.
With 600 doctors in the organization’s database, there’s no shortage of volunteers nor medical experience. During the brigade in Tame, the team includes pediatricians, gynecologists, dermatologists, optometrists and ophthalmologists. In the future, Enrique Martín Poveda, Director of Operations, believes PAC could fly in volunteers that can help with landscaping and rebuilding homes.
As I head down a dirt track to the local school where the medical consultations are taking place, the entrance is blocked by a crowd waiting for their name to be called according to a roster. The list was drawn from the approximately 800 consults that PAC’s medical director, Dr.Angélica Vélez Fernández gave in the previous week to prioritize who needs surgery, or see a specialist when the brigade comes to town. The patients eventually take a seat in one of the school’s classrooms.
Stopping by Optometry, eye specialist Luz Marina Arévalo explains that patients get to choose their own frames according to what suits their face. “It’s personalized, and these details make the difference,” says Arévalo. “If not, what we do wouldn’t make any sense.”
As night sets in, surgeries get underway. This weekend, 155 have been scheduled, including many cataracts, a problem in the Eastern plains, given excessive sunlight and exposure by farmers to harmful ultraviolet rays. “They feel listened to for the first time in their lives,” says Arévalo.
Patrulla Aérea aims to keep on growing, and offer new surgical specializations with the implementation of an information system developed with Desafío Google. The organization was awarded third place by Google Challenge 2017 for its high impact humanitarian work, and USD$ 450,000 in prize money will go toward building a health monitoring system in rural zones. This information will then be updated by the communities allowing PAC to know which specialists and treatments are required in each situation. “With this system, we will be able to reach increasingly more remote municipalities,” believes general manager Pamela Estrada. The plan also includes creating the country’s first mobile field hospital that can respond to emergencies in 24 hours, and another example of the inspirational work that begins in the skies above Colombia.